Gang Database Criticized for Denying Due Process May Be Used for Deportations

gang database deportations

A man being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in 2015 in Los Angeles. Activists are concerned that the Trump administration could use a gang database to deport unauthorized immigrants regarded as criminals, even if they have no criminal record. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Peter Arellano was standing on the street with his father last year when an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department handcuffed him, supposedly for vandalism a few blocks away. Before asking him for any information about the incident, the police officer asked him for his gang moniker, Mr. Arellano said. He told the officer he had none. But moments later, Mr. Arellano was served with a gang injunction, restricting where he could go in public and with whom.

“There wasn’t a chance to argue or anything,” Mr. Arellano said, who denies any affiliation with a gang. “They just gave it to me and said I would be arrested if I broke it.”

Arellano, 21, is one of about 10,000 people in the city subject to an injunction, which prohibits suspected gang members from a variety of activities in designated neighborhoods. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the city over the injunctions, arguing that they violate due process and effectively amount to house arrest. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in October, seeks to stop the police from enforcing the injunctions against people who have not been given a chance to prove they are not gang members.

The debate over just who is considered a gang member has taken on new significance because President-elect Donald J. Trump could use the database to help deport unauthorized immigrants the administration regards as criminals, even if they have no criminal record.

The debate over just who is considered a gang member has taken on new significance because President-elect Donald J. Trump could use the database to help deport unauthorized immigrants the administration regards as criminals, even if they have no criminal record.

Gang injunctions have been used in Los Angeles for nearly three decades, stemming from the time when the city was a fertile ground for street gangs that eventually became multinational crime rings. Law enforcement officials credit the injunctions with helping to curb gang violence throughout the city.

But the A.C.L.U. advocates and academic researchers argue that the injunctions needlessly include people who have no gang ties and are targeted merely because they live in a neighborhood where a gang once ruled.

The Los Angeles Police Department declined to comment, and the city intends to fight the lawsuit in court.

As the lawsuit makes its way through the court, advocates are also pressing state law enforcement officials to reconsider the use of the statewide gang database, arguing that it also casts too wide a net and labels people as gang members without enough evidence.

A report by the California state auditor released last year found that the state database, known as CalGang, was rife with inaccuracies, included many people without enough evidence of their supposed gang ties, and might violate their privacy rights.

While a person served with an injunction is not necessarily in the state database, the criteria for the two are effectively the same, including whether a person wears “gang dress” or has gang tattoos or spends time in gang areas. Law enforcement officers also include someone who admits to gang membership, but advocates say that often the admission is nothing more than saying what neighborhood the person lives in.

“These are all individuals who are placed in there based on very thin evidence, and then that information is turned around to deny them rights,” said Carmen Iguina, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. who is leading the lawsuit. “What we’ve seen is that if you’re a brown or a black kid in these neighborhoods, the chances of you being called a gang member are extremely high.”

People who contend they have been wrongly labeled gang members can appeal and be removed from an injunction, but the lawsuit says the process is “painstakingly slow,” often taking more than a year.<

A state law that goes into effect next year will allow individuals to find out if they are included in the state gang database and fight against their inclusion. But that does little to reassure immigration lawyers who have already seen clients face harsh repercussions for being listed. Of the roughly 150,000 people in the CalGang database, 21 percent are black and 61 percent are Latino, according to the state report.

Mr. Trump has vowed to immediately deport two million to three million unauthorized immigrants. Roughly 820,000 undocumented immigrants have criminal records, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group.

Erika Pinheiro, an immigration lawyer at the Central American Resource Center who has represented accused gang members in dozens of deportation cases, said that inclusion in the state database leads to an “exponentially harder time” in fighting deportation proceedings.

In one case, she said, a man who had been served with a gang injunction was walking with his family in a park and said hello to another man. The police then arrested him for violating the injunction and he was later transferred to custody with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

“Once you’re in there, the chances of getting out of being called a designated gang member are next to nothing,” Ms. Pinheiro said. “You’re really going to sweep up the most vulnerable people, and you have to imagine how many people are going to be railroaded into the system without due process.”

Claude Arnold, a former deputy assistant director of operations for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division who helped create an anti-gang program for the agency, disputed the notion that those without gang ties were unfairly swept up by federal officials.

jennifer medina“What we’re interested in is disrupting and dismantling criminal gang activity,” he said. “We’re looking for people who can provide us information. To have effective gang suppression, you have to stay on them all the time and you have to have zero tolerance.”

Jennifer Medina
New York Times

About Jennifer Medina

Jennifer Medina became an education reporter for The New York Times in June 2007, covering New York City schools. Ms. Medina has held several positions since joining The Times in 2004, most recently serving as Hartford bureau chief since July 2006. Previously, she covered Westchester and the New York State legislature in Albany.

She joined The Times as an intern in education, where she turned out a memorable series on how city schools were pushing students out so they wouldn't count as part of the dropout rate. Ms. Medina began her journalism career with internships at the Boston Globe, Denver Post, Orange County Register and Reno Gazette Journal.

In 2006, Ms. Medina was the recipient of a Front Page Award from the Newswomen's Club of New York for her stories on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Born in Riverside, Calif., Ms. Medina graduated from Rubidoux High School. She received a bachelor's degree in print journalism and political science from University of Southern California. She currently lives in Manhattan.